The hype about the 28-6 Seattle Storm and the seeming inevitability of winning the franchise's second WNBA title isn't entirely unfounded.
They steamrolled through the league en route to a 22-2 record through July -- the best start in the history of Seattle professional sports -- and finished the regular season with a 17-0 record at KeyArena. With the best record in the league -- tied for the most wins in league history -- the Storm will have home court advantage throughout the playoffs so winning a championship would seem to be a matter of continuing to do what they've been doing.
Yet the Storm are fully aware that a championship is not inevitable and not just because the Sparks are peaking, but because no regular season record will simply lift you to playoff success -- more than one player has acknowledged the reality that their record as of today is 0-0.
"We try to talk about respecting our opponents," said Agler when asked about the post-season expectations framed by their regular season success. "We take it game by game and we talked with our team that after the regular season's over, now, it goes back to Ground Zero -- everybody's record is 0-0 right now. And I think, to me it did anyway and I told our team this on Saturday, that LA definitely got my attention after that game and I think all the players would agree with that. So, I mean, everybody's going to have their opinions on that and have their predictions about what's going to happen, but we're definitely not looking at it that way."
But looking closely at the overall record also shows that even the path to regular season success wasn't easy.
The Storm are 8-1 in games decided by five points or less and 13-6 when facing a deficit at the beginning of the fourth quarter. While one way to look at that is as a measure of veteran resilience and strong coaching, another way to think about it is that they've been closer to losing more than a few games than their dominant overall record might imply.
So as dominant as they've been, they aren't exactly invincible either.
There may be no better example of that that than the fact they needed a difficult jump shot along the baseline fading out of bounds from Tanisha Wright to defeat their first round opponent, the Los Angeles Sparks, 76-75 this past Saturday. And no, they weren't exactly resting their starters and a game away from the playoffs, Agler was attempting to make sure the team was sharp.
"It's not like we have to turn it on right now -- we've been doing that here the last week," said Agler. "Two weeks ago we got some people some rest and now we've played a couple of close games here at home even. So I'm hoping that will get our juices flowing."
Moreso than other teams, the Storm have been in preparation mode for some time. Given that their approach the entire season has been to see the regular season as preparation for now, perhaps what we can say about the regular season as the playoffs begin today is that it lost a significant portion of its relevance when it ended on Saturday.
This is not a team that had to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs -- it was virtually a given they were going to get there after jumping out to a huge lead in the standings early in the season, it was clinched in July, and they've had a month to get themselves mentally ready to move forward. So without an in-depth analysis of how the Storm dominated teams during a regular season that essentially became a means to tune up for now a month ago, the best way to describe what they Storm bring to the post-season is focus, poise, and immense confidence.
They never allowed themselves to get to get too wrapped up in the hype of the regular season records and did a remarkable job of maintaining a focus on what needed to be done to put themselves in position for the playoffs.
"Fans are into the whole hoopla of the records and this and that," said Wright when asked about their regular season success. "But ultimately, when it comes down to it, it's all about if you can win at the end. So this would be all for nothing if you don't go and capitalize at the end. When it gets to that time of the year, it's a whole different beast - everybody knows that."
Part of that poise in the face of such historic success comes from the championship experience of the multiple veterans on the roster. Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson were with the team when they won the franchise's first title in 2004. Swin Cash won two titles with the Detroit Shock coached by infamous former Detroit Pistons player Bill Laimbeer. Reserve forward Le'coe Willingham won a ring last year with the Phoenix Mercury. Not only do they know what it takes, but they're all hungry for more and know what it means to remain focused.
Another reason that can't be underestimated is the coaching of Agler, who is a strong candidate for Coach of the Year not just because of his ability to lead the team to tying a league record for wins, but also because of all those close games they pulled out.
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It might be a surprise to some readers, but I would have picked Brian Agler to be named the best coach by the metric. He came close, just a half-point away. Seattle was 8-1 in games decided by five points or less. Imagine, say, Steven Key at the head of the Storm (who had a 3-7 record in such games) and the Storm might have hit double-digits in losses.
The most impressive thing about Agler from a leadership perspective is that he got the team to buy into his mantra of maintaining tunnel vision and staying focused on improving with each game in preparation for what they expected to come down the road.
But ultimately, sticking tangentially with a Coach of the Year discussion, it's not like a team with three leaders with championship experience needed a whole lot of prodding to stay focused on adding another to their resume. It's a team that's built to win and hungry to make it happen.
"We're mature enough and we've been in this league long enough where we know to look big picture," said Bird. "And big picture for our team was getting ready for the playoffs no matter what that meant for our record, for the record in terms of most wins, for anything."